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Whispers of the Plains ~ Anna Dagmar

Anna Dagmar’s lastest album “Let the Waves Come In Threes” receieved a glowing review a few weeks back, now we’ve been able to snap up Anna for a quick interview. This is what the singer/songwriter had to say:

“Let the Waves Come in Threes” came five years after your last CD release (it seems! please correct me if I’m wrong). Did life just get in the way or were their musical things that meant that the time was right just then?


“Let the Waves Come in Threes,” is my first full-length album since 2004, but I have several other recordings in my discography from the years in between: Martha Colby, Across Two Rivers (piano side-person, 2005), Nadine Goellner Live (piano side-person, 2006), Anna Dagmar EP (2006 – this was the lead-up to Let the Waves and it was my first small project with producer Ben Wittman), Anna Dagmar Songbook (2008 – this is a printed sheet-music book with accompaniment CD for other singers to learn my songs). But in answer to the end of your question, yes, the time was right to make the new full-length recording.  [ED ~ Anna’s other CD’s are available at CD Baby]

How do songs initially come to you? Do you have a specific way of writing songs?

Most often, I am practicing and improvising and the piano, and a musical idea strikes me. After a while of playing it, I can string together more phrases, or begin to think about the mood of the music. Sometimes while playing something continuously, melodies begin to sound like words, in their shape or gesture. At that stage, I can design words or thoughts to go along with the music. And from those first lyrics, a song theme is born. It’s no surprise that the words usually do connect to an experience or trial I’m going through in life at the time. But I try not to force an auto-biography on the songs. I like to let it be more abstract and I like the song to reveal itself.
Occasionally, it’s the opposite process, as in the final track, “Can We Be Old Friends.” I wrote an entire poem based on an experience I had visiting a friend’s former military academy. I thought it would just be a poem. But it sat on my piano and one day I discovered a simple drone that could accompany the words. Over time, a melody grew from the chords and I had a song.

What were your favourite parts of making your latest album?

I love being in the studio. At that point, I have practiced with my band and we are all pumped and ready to record! It’s exciting to hear the way the other musicians contribute in such individual ways. The producer, Ben Wittman, usually has many ideas going in, but he also surprises me during the process with spontaneous inspiration. It’s more fun than most anything! After we have the instrumentals and a draft of the vocal complete, the final step is for me to record the actual vocal. This is probably the biggest challenge, as I have more training and feel much more confident at the piano. But I have learned to be more and more patient with the vocal process to get the sound the songs need. Of course it’s very satisfying to look at the CD once it’s complete, but I always think back to the making of it, in the studio, and I have many fond memories.

Did you have any particular challenges for creating “Let the Waves…”?

I would say any time you take on such a big project – 12 original songs with 13 musicians, featuring string arrangements, you have to go in knowing there will be challenges. One of the greatest challenges for me is moving from that stage as the “writer” to truly being the “performer,” because they really are different things. As the writer, I can live in a world of fantasy and exaggeration. I can write anything I want – a story, a caricature, a poem. But as a performer, I have to live that thing and express it in a way that hopefully many people will understand. Some listeners focus on the words first, some the music. Both have to be equally convincing and enjoyable, in my view. I am always seeking that balance, that marriage between the words and the music. It is hard to make the transition from being in your own safe, little writing world, to be in front of an audience (even if you don’t see them), and hoping that they will feel something moving in your work.

The strings in particular are beautifully done on the album. How did you go about that and did you write those sections?

I wrote the string arrangements in part with skills I learned from arranging classes at Eastman School of Music. But it’s also a lot of trial and error! I pulled the recorded piano/bass/drum tracks into a program called ProTools, where you can layer sounds. Then I plugged in a keyboard that could simulate the sound of a single string. As I began to write the arrangement on manuscript paper, I played the strings in on top of the recording we had already done, and tested out the effect. I would say for each song that has a string arrangement, it took an average of 10 hours to complete each arrangement (with tea breaks!). When I brought, “Daydream,” into the studio on our string recording day, Ben said, “Don’t worry, I’ve got your back if there’s any problem with the arrangement – I’ll help you fix it.” I was so thrilled and relieved when he only changed ONE note!

Looking back on your previous works, how is “Let the Waves…” different to your previous releases?

In my opinion, it’s a more mature collection, because of the way the songs hang together. Also, Ben and I have been working together for a few years now, and we’ve established a solid trust and understanding. I feel he understands the songs and wants the meaning of each to be heard, so we worked together from after I had composed the songs to the end of the making of the CD, to be sure each track would really hold water. I think as an artist, you should always have something to strive for – something next. But you have to hope that your work in the present, honestly represents you, right now. I do feel that way about this album, and I don’t have to make apologies or disclaimers if I hand the CD to someone – it reflects the best work I can create, right at this moment.

You also have a CD/songbook package from 2008 that contains a large collection of melodies. That’s quite unique for an artist to do. What inspired that?
This idea was partly inspired by a request for my voice teacher, who wanted to have copies of my songs for his other students to learn. Also a fan that had come to many of my shows asked for the piano music, saying even for a pianist who doesn’t sing, some of the songs would just be fun to learn. After a few requests along these lines, I decided to make it happen, and the book is up on www.CDbaby.com/annadagmar4. They were very kind to sell it just like a CD, even though it is printed music with a practice/accompaniment CD. I also am planning to make the music available as individual PDF’s on my own website this year.

If you had the chance to learn any new instrument, what would you choose and why?

I would probably learn one or two songs on the guitar, just for practical reasons – it’s a big lighter than piano! But for fun, I’d like to learn the trumpet. I studied it for a few weeks during my education degree in college, and according to a trumpet-playing friend, I had natural high chops! Has something to do with your lips… I learned a bunch of Christmas Carols on the trumpet that year and it was such a joy to pick up, and just make a sound with breathing! We miss that experience on the piano…

HPM thanks Anna for her time and we wish her the best of success with the album.

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